Jerusalem - the global capital of tourism security

As much a matter of perception as the safety itself.

An Israeli Border Policewoman at the scene of the Jerusalem Central Bus Station stabbing attack, December 10, 2017. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An Israeli Border Policewoman at the scene of the Jerusalem Central Bus Station stabbing attack, December 10, 2017.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Feeling secure is as important as being secure. That was the key message emerging from this week’s International Tourism Security Conference in Jerusalem, attended by tourism and security executives from all over the world – all eager to learn from Israel’s undesirably-gained experience in keeping its visitors safe while combating terrorism.
“The tourism product is the most complicated [one] on sale. It is a trust or belief product,” Dirk Glaesser, the Director for Sustainable Development of Tourism at the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), told conference goers.
“Compared to other products, which can assess when there will be a crisis, you have to trust or believe those [who are] presenting to you the tourism product,” Glaesser added.
Terrorist attacks have the potential to devastate a city’s tourism industry, causing would-be visitors to look elsewhere for a product perceived to be safer and more trustworthy.
A Belgian study evaluating the impact of the March 2016 triple-suicide bombing in Brussels detailed the considerable effect of the attacks on the city’s tourism, and even on the entire country. Overnight stays in Brussels hotels decreased by some 24.3% in the first nine months of 2016, compared to the same period in 2017. In Belgium as a whole, overnight stays decreased by 5.2%.
The data shows that foreign visitors transferred the perceived lack of security in the Belgian capital to the remainder of the country, with British and French citizens the quickest to stay away.
Brussels is one of several major cities that Ilanit Melchior, director of tourism at the Jerusalem Development Authority, has advised regarding tourism security and how to ensure the continuation of the industry despite looming threats of terrorism.
During the decade that Melchior has headed the authority’s tourism department, the country has experienced three major military operations in Gaza as well as the 2015-16 wave of violence in Israeli cities dubbed by some as the “knife intifada.” During the same period, Jerusalem saw inbound tourism grow by 47%. Last year, 78% of the record-breaking 3.6 million tourists who visited Israel toured Jerusalem.
“Three months after the attacks in Brussels, I went to the town center. Everyone was tense; there were tanks and machine guns,” Melchior told The Jerusalem Post.
“I went to the city for a coffee and everything was closed – there were only candles,” she added. “It’s a question of time, experience and the way a nation would like to grieve, but you have to bear in mind the need to manage the situation.”
FOLLOWING TERROR attacks in Jerusalem, Melchior is quick to send her staff to the streets, equipped with their phone cameras. By interviewing people on the ground, explaining that the city has returned to normal, her department manages to fill the vacuum left after statements regarding the violence have been made by the military, police and senior politicians.
If, during the Second Intifada, indiscriminate terror attacks against civilians were perceived as a primarily Israeli problem, that perception is no longer the case. Major attacks in recent years in New York, Barcelona, London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Stockholm and Brussels have made Israeli expertise more critical than ever.
As the understanding of the need for Israeli security know-how grows, this week’s summit drew experts from countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, France and Japan.
For Melchior and her Israeli colleagues, the key to a steadfast tourism industry is not based on denying the existence of security concerns. Rather, it is the job of cities to ensure that tourists are strongly aware of the safety measures put in place to prevent and react to terrorist attacks.
“The tourist today does not know when and where the next event will take place, but he does know that Israel is safe and that we have experience in dealing with terrorist incidents,” Tourism Ministry director-general Amir Halevi told the conference.
According to leading travel website TripAdvisor’s 455 million users, Halevi’s comments are an accurate depiction of global perception.
“The company’s research among users shows that Israel, and specifically Jerusalem, are both considered as safe as any other tourist destination,” said Justin Reid, VP of Marketing at TripAdvisor. The website hosts more than a million reviews of places to stay and things to do in Israel.
“The scores here are great. With an average of over 4 out of 5, the message about the great product is being spread by your greatest advocates – people who have been there,” Reid told the Post.
KEEPING SECURITY matters in proportion is important as well. Terrorism is only responsible for a very small share of deaths in the world annually – in 2016, only 0.06% compared to 32.26% from cardiovascular diseases.
The British Royal Statistical Society’s “International Statistic of 2017” was awarded to the number 69. Why? “This is the annual number of Americans killed, on average, by lawnmowers – compared to two Americans killed annually, on average, by immigrant Jihadist terrorists,” said the society.
Yet the threat of terrorism for the tourism industry lies not in its statistical improbability, but rather in its volatility, unpredictability and fear-inducing capabilities.
Yossi Fatael, Head of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Organization, sees tourism security expertise as not only a tool to help others, but also as a business opportunity.
“We need to integrate ‘the elephant in the room’ that everyone ignores,” said Fatael. “Security is among the three most important elements for the average tourist, and therefore must be part of an overall tourism practice.
“We are talking about a need and concern of every traveling tourist, and hence the industry must develop a dedicated toolbox and provide a direct response where the service is an added amenity that can be charged for.”
Those attending the conference will return to their home countries with a two-fold understanding of Israeli expertise. The Israeli tourism security “toolbox” is based, they will have learned, on both years of necessary security expertise and a willingness to confront the issue and reassure potential visitors.
“We want to be identified by the agriculture, the science, the technology, the medicine, as the start-up nation – however, reality is not so,” said Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Avi Benayahu, former IDF spokesperson and strategic consultant for the summit.
“Along with the development of Israel, we gained a heaviness in war. Israel’s stance on the issue is that only global solutions can fix global problems, such as the terrorism problem,” he said.
The seeds of such a global tourism security effort were planted this week in Jerusalem.